Wineskins Archive

February 6, 2014

The Quarter of Remembrance (Nov-Dec 2000)

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by Mike Cope
November – December, 2000

I actually got to meet Dr. Channing Barrett, thought I don’t remember the meeting because I was too young. But that doesn’t change my picture of him as a young man walking a marathon of miles every weekend. In my mind, I see him returning home to Blissfield, Michigan around the turn of the century.

Channing Barrett was one of eight boys and was the first evern in the Barrett family to go to college. From his medical school, he walked twenty-five miles home each weekend, always returning a couple days later with clean clothes, a food packet, and a dollar.

Dr. Barrett became one of the first ob-gyns in Chicago, practicing at Cook County Hospital. He was known widely both for his innovative surgical techniques and for his ambidextrous skills that allowed him to change hands during long procedures.

There was no patient whom he wouldn’t accept. He delivered many “tenement babies” for fifty cents and many babies for the wives of Mafia dons for a good bit more!

With a growing, respected medical practice, a wonderful wife, and three children, this young physician seemed to be living the idyllic life. He enjoyed riding horses and lifting weights, and was an early member of the Polar Bear Society – that “unique” group that takes to the chilly waters of Lake Michigan in January each year to prove – well, who knows what they’re trying to prove?

And then World War I interrupted this Normal Rockwell life. Dr. Barrett left Chicago to run a field hospital in France, followed shortly by his 17-year-old son, who fought in the trenches.

As long as he could, Barrett sent money back to his wife and daughters. But by the last year of the war, his funds were nearly exhausted. He had no more to mail home. Mrs. Barrett sold most of what they owned, trying desperately to keep her daughters fed and clothed without having to lose their house.

By the time Christmas rolled around in 1918, there were no presents to place under the tree. They were lucky to have a place to live.

But Mrs. Barrett had managed, despite all the financial scrimping, to save two quarters. So on Christmas morning, when the girls emptied their stockings, under the paper dolls their mother had cut out for them and under a couple pieces of candy, they each found a coin.

Previous Christmas mornings had been more lavish, filled with frilly dresses and expensive toys. And there would be more such mornings in the future. But this was the Christmas the family would always remember.

In the future, even during the years of plenty, when the girls emptied their stockings, they always found — under the apples, oranges, nuts, and candy — a quarter.

It was a reminder — a reminder that some years are good while others aren’t too good. Some years deliver new babies, promotions, raises, and great promises. Other years offer sickness, failure, death, and deep disappointment.

The quarter reminded them about both possibilities. It warned them not to write off all the pain of the past as if it didn’t exist. It taught them that the sorrows and wounds of their lives had shaped their characters as much as their joys and accomplishments.

Anyone who takes seriously the Christmas stories of Scripture knows that the first Christmas stories of Scripture knows that the first Christmas had more than angels, shepherds, wise men, and a mother nursing her baby. There was also the anguish of childbirth. There were the pungent, impolite odors of an animal pen. There was an old man who held the baby and told his mother, “A sword will pierce your own soul too.” There were the voices of many mothers screaming for their baby boys being slaughteed by a demented ruler named Herod. There was a breathless escape to Egypt as Mary and Joseph sought to protect their child, who was the true “Prince of Egypt.”

The entrance of God’s Son into the world meant peace — but it didn’t assure that people would get along. It meant great joy — but it didn’t mean we’d always get to grin. And it meant unconditional love — though it never implied that everyone would act lovingly.

And so one family, year anfter year, continued dropping a quarter of remembrance into the bottom of each child’s stocking.

At least one of Channing Barrett’s children picked up that tradition. Every year thorugh the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, her five children, Dr. Barrett’s grandchildren, pulled their stockings off the chimney on Christmas morning to find quarters buried under fruit, nuts and candy.

And at least one of those five passed it on to her four children. And at least one of those four is passing it on to his children.

The quarter has mysteriously tied this family together — binding even generations who never met. Together they have remembered that bad year in 1918 and other bad years since.

One year brought the safe birth of a new nephew; another brought the self-inflicted death of a relative who couldn’t keep fighting the demons of his life.

One year brought the thrilling news from the gynecologist that a baby was on the way; another brought the news from the pediatrician that the baby wasn’t developing right.

Some years brought joy; others brought deep, deep pain. The quarter is a remembrance that the meaning of Christmas is deeper than our triumphs and sorrows. It is a joy that can’t fully be expressed, a peace that passes understanding.

For years my children have followed this tradition started by their Great, Great Grandmother Barrett. Together, we’ve experienced the love of God, woven through the fabric of good days and dark days.

Six Christmases ago the quarter represented a burden that was crushig our hearts. Not long before Christmas of ’94 our ten-year-old daughter, Megan, took her last breath. The administrators bent the rules just a bit just before her death so Megan’s fmaily, friends, doctors, and nurses could cram in the little room while I read this blessing:

Megan, You have been a blessing from God for ten years. You have worn us out — but as much more you have taught us about the deeper meanings of life. With your joy, your love, and your pure spirit, you have challenged our petty complaints about life. Just as you have lived with great joy, may you die with the joy and peace of the Lord upon you. You have always wanted to march in the Lord’s Army. Your mother, your brothers, these friends, and I all release you into his hands. Please save a place in the ranks for us, for we will always look forward to seeing you again. May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.

Despite being mentally retarded and medically fragile, she seemed to soak in every word as if the blessing was her transportation ticket to heaven.

There was one less stocking on the chimney in our home that Christmas. Her death was surely the darkest moment of our lives. We felt very connected to Matthew’s Christmas story, the one that tells of “Rachel weeping for her children” (Matthew 2:17).

And last Christmas, our family returned to that grief, for in June my brother’s son, Jantsen Barrett Cope, died suddenly and unexpectedly after lifting weights with his high school football team. I had no idea how we’d all gather in my parents’ living room without his big, joyful laughs. Fifteen is too young to die. Our quarters were quarters of grief.

And yet, my sister has given birth again, to a baby girl, and my brother and his wife have adopted a Vietnamese boy. So amid our grief, we share joy. “There’s a time to be born and a time to die.”

By God’s grace we survived.

Mike Cope narrates “The Quarter of Remembrance” at YouTube.Wineskins Magazine

Mike Cope

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